“From each according to ability, to each according to need?” Not in sports! Or Politics 101: Learn to play the game, fairly or not

Frank Knight, one of the founders of the so-called “Chicago School” of economics, took seriously the idea that markets are a kind of game. But he wondered whether something that is both a game and a system designed to satisfy wants could be fair.

“In a system which is at the same time a want-satisfying mechanism and a competitive game we seem to find three ethical ideals in conflict.  The first is the principle already mentioned, of distribution according to effort.  The second is the principal of ‘tools to those who can use them.’  This is a necessary condition of efficiency, but involves giving the best player the best hand, the fastest runner the benefit of the handicap, and thus flagrantly violates the third ideal, which is to maintain the conditions of fairness in the game.” (“The Ethics of Competition,” p. 54 [1923])

There is no reason to think the system or game can meet all of our ethical expectations. If winning is a priority for the team, can we expect them to play fair? Does being fair to the team and its fans (e.g. by giving them the best chance to win) require being unfair to certain players (e.g. not letting them play because they aren’t as good)? And are these notions of fairness in games appropriate in settings dealing with people’s livelihoods? Is it right for firms to give some workers benefits that others don’t get? Should firms be able to horde secrets that might make all firms more efficient if they were shared?

So what is fair and what is foul in sports or business? Knight seems to be suggesting that it is hard to tell because we have at least three “ethical ideals” for justice and they each give us different answers to this question.

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One response to ““From each according to ability, to each according to need?” Not in sports! Or Politics 101: Learn to play the game, fairly or not

  1. It seems like for professional sports, as in business, the Knight’s second criterion — efficiency — is the only one that matters. And in a sense, that’s how it should be. But for lower-level amateur sports, even possibly some collegiate teams, but certainly high-school and little-league teams, we do think that coaches should follow other norms. E.g., that they should let all the kids play, even if the team would do better if the few star players played all the time.

    As for the third condition, I get the feeling that Knight has a very broad view of the “game” of business, and thinks that most potential “players” are treated unfairly from the start and never have an opportunity to develop the skills and capital they need to have an honest shot at success.

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